Tuesday, November 24, 2009

NaNoWriMo - Complete!!

Well, as of this past Sunday, November 22nd, I have completed my NaNoWriMo novel. With over 50,000 words and a complete narrative arc (which, admittedly, could stand to be filled in more), I wrote a novel in less than a month.


Some lessons I've learned:

I am not a "make it up as you go along" writer. I like working from sort of outline: in this case, a set of chapter headings that told me what each chapter should be about. Even vague guidelines were better than trying to write blind, and I think this novel turned out better than my last effort. For whatever I work on next, I intend to take copious notes before I jump into the full narrative. (Which leads to the problem of never actually starting anything, of course. Selah.)

I need a thesaurus. Granted, NaNoWriMo is not about trying for brilliant prose, it's about flinging 50,000+ instances of poo at paper and seeing what sticks. But I overused certain descriptive phrases way too often for my tastes.

I need to watch out for adjectives. Actually I used these little monsters as word count boosters, so I'd say at least a third were deliberate and would die in the initial rewrite. But they were painful to write in the first place, and I'll be cutting back in the future.

I can write like a bastard when I need to. Here, go look. I had one day (off) when I wrote damn near 10,000 words, and ten days where I broke 2,000 words. I can't match Stephen King, but I can keep up with him for a bit before the psychotic episode hits.

I don't actually need to write like a bastard. Just before starting NaNoWriMo, I read a book, How To Write & Sell Your First Novel by Oscar Collier and Frances Spatz Leighton, which recommended a daily output of three double-spaced manuscript pages. This was a revelation when compared to Stephen King's recommendation, which is ten double-spaced pages (five if you're just starting out), or the NaNoWriMo recommended minimum, which is about 1,667 words a day. So what if you can't match the pace of a Maine prodigy or a bunch of over-caffeinated noveling fiends? If you wrote three double-spaced pages, you did okay. It's truly a marvelous philosophy, and I encourage it wholeheartedly for anyone who gets brain strain after reading On Writing.


Author's Log

In addition to the final stages of the novel, I drafted six two-page character sketches for an upcoming project. I learned the technique from First Draft in 30 Days, by Karen S. Wiesner. The title is a blatant lie, but as a prewriting guide this book seems to be aces so far.

Current Reading

Just finished Summer Knight, the fourth book in the Dresden Files. Another excellent read. I'm now working on Cory Doctorow's short story collection, Overclocked.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

What I Learned About Writing From Watching Glee!

Glee! is a sitcom on the Fox network that revolves around the members of a high school glee club. It is a pretty good dramedy, and I'm going to be going into some major spoilers for it here, so if you think you might be interested I'd recommend browsing to Hulu and watching at least the first two episodes before reading any further.

You back yet? Good.

Television abounds with lessons to teach the writer, both good and bad. Today I'll be talking about what a writer can learn from watching Glee!. To keep the post short, I'll be focusing on three of the show's antagonists and their relationships to the protagonists.

The Characters

Terri Schuester is the wife of Will Schuester, the show's protagonist. Terri is introduced in the first episode as an antagonist. She and Will are fairly obviously not right for each other, something which both characters are becoming aware of. Terri is terrified that Will is going to leave her, to the extent that she suffers a hysterical (false) pregnancy. Once she learns that she is not pregnant, she fears that Will will leave her as soon as he finds out, and determines to deceive him and find a substitute baby to save their marriage.

Quinn Fabray is the leader of the school's cheerleaders. She is introduced as an antagonist to Rachel Berry, a lesser protagonist who has a crush on Finn Hudson, Quinn's boyfriend. She is later revealed to be pregnant by another student, Puck, but convinces Finn that he is the father even though they have never had sex.

Sue Sylvester is the coach of the cheerleading squad and another antagonist for Will. She is determined to squash Will's glee club, in the interests of keeping the lion's share of the school's budget coming to her cheerleaders.

Lessons Learned

Give your antagonists believable motivations - No bad guy should ever be evil just for the sake of being evil, unless you're writing a philosophical story. Your antagonists should have reasons for doing what they do that are just as strong as your protagonists.
  • Terri lies to Will about her pregnancy because she is terrified of losing him. All of her actions are motivated by her desire to save their marriage.

  • Quinn lies to Finn about him fathering her child, and does her best to hide it, because she is terrified of losing the approval of her peers and parents. Her actions are motivated by her desire to keep her social status.

  • Sue sets out to destroy the glee club because she wants to maintain the primacy of her cheerleading squad. She is motivated by her desire to succeed.
Make your antagonists sympathetic - Being able to sympathize with a bad guy lends the character extra depth. You might not want them to win (should not, in fact, want them to win, unless your protagonist is the bad guy), but being able to relate to the reasons they do the things they do adds another layer to their conflict with the protagonist.
  • Terri is presented as amoral and manipulative, someone we hope that Will will ultimately leave. However, she clearly loves her husband in her own way, and her attempts to deceive him are her way of hanging on to her love. The viewer can sympathize with her, even while they hope she doesn't succeed.

  • Quinn is presented in a similar fashion to Terri, but her motivations are different. She deceives Finn not out of love (she constantly attacks him), but because she believes he will be a better boyfriend and father than Puck. She acts out of self-interest alone, and the viewer finds it harder to sympathize with her. This makes Quinn a more two-dimensional character than Terri: easier to dislike, but ultimately less interesting.

  • Sue is presented as an eccentric, hyper-competitive woman. She will take any action to ensure that her cheerleaders succeed, even if she has to crush other people to do so. But when not engaged in competition, she can be generous to her peers, and is capable of showing kindness even to her enemies under the right circumstances. She does not appear capable of true malice, and the viewer can relate to her as a fair competitor.
Don't force your characters to act like morons - This doesn't mean your characters can't actually be morons. It means that you should never have a character act stupidly or out of character in order to stick to your desired plot.
  • Terri convinces Will that she is pregnant by wearing a fake baby bump. The viewer is asked to believe that Will has not seen his wife naked in months, has not touched her belly under her shirt, and that he can't tell the difference between padding and a human stomach. It's conceivable, but difficult to believe.

  • Quinn convinces Finn that he got her pregnant by ejaculating in a hot tub. While Finn is not portrayed as intelligent, a simple Google search would be enough to prove that this is a lie. The deception irritates the viewer because it is artificially prolonged.

  • In contrast, Sue constantly takes actions that should be unbelievable. However, all of her actions are in keeping with her character. The viewer accepts her eccentric actions because they are consistent with what they know about her.

There are other lessons one can learn from watching Glee!, and other characters that could be examined. These are simply the ones that stuck with me in the early part of the show. Feel free to comment if you disagree with anything, or think there's something else about the show that an author could take to heart.

Author's Log

Running well ahead of par in NaNoWriMo, with 40,000 words so far. I'm hoping to reach 50,000 by the end of the weekend. To my fellow month-long novelists, I wish the best of luck (and I hope you'll reciprocate!).

Current Reading

I've finished book three of the Dresden Files, and have started on book four, Summer Knight. This series really does just get better as it goes.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

A Shameful Hiatus

Sorry for the lack of updates. NaNoWriMo is taking a bigger toll on my time than I expected, mostly because I've somehow stumbled into crunch mode at work, rather than the usual holiday slack-a-day festivities we get this time of year. When you've got a terrible batch of deadlines bearing down on you, spending your workday writing demonstrable crap is not smiled on.

To add to the fun, I got word back this week on three (yes three) novel pitches I sent in to a publisher. The idea (I suspect I've posted on this before) was that I would pitch three takes on a book dealing with a particular subject, and the editors would bat these around and pick the best of breed, or possibly suggest blending two of them together.

The actual result: The editors liked the heroes of one pitch, the villains of a second pitch, and the military elements of a third pitch. So my assignment will be to distill all the bits that the editors like and build a full synopsis based on whatever I come up with.

Happily, I like the heroes and the villains the editors like (and I think there's a lesson there), so getting to use them both is just great. And I was never invested enough in prewriting for any one story to feel that I have to junk anything. Now I just need to deliver five or ten pages of synopsis before I get a polite but firm reminder...


Author's Log

Nearly 20,000 words since my last blog post, almost all of which will be murdered by the Red Pen of Doom sometime in December. Still a great level of output.

Current Reading

Dreaming in Code, by Scott Rosenberg, one of the founders of Salon.com. It's a biography or post-mortem of an attempt to develop a rival to Microsoft Outlook. There's something about software disaster documentaries that just appeals to me, mostly because they aren't happening to me!

Also, getting back into Grave Peril after a long break. Nothing against the book, I just got distracted by some others that were shorter or obligatory. Unfortunately I peeked at the back cover of the forth book in the series, which did a magnificent job of spoiling the third one in its first sentence. That's strike one, Mr. Butcher. Let's not have that happen again.

Finally, for comic book fans, the hardcover of Wolverine: Old Man Logan is out now. It's an excellent read for fans of Mark Millar's earlier work on Wolverine: Enemy of the State, as well as people who like westerns such as Unforgiven. That said, it's a very quick read once you get started, and the hardcover isn't exactly packed with extra features, so I'd encourage you to wait for the softcover edition if you're short on cash.